Lake City — John Bevier was three days beyond high school graduation in Ypsilanti when he was sworn into the U.S. Navy more than six decades ago. His service still continues today, although in a much different manner.

Bevier has taken on the task of decorating each of the 1,397 graves of Missaukee County veterans with wreaths in this northern Michigan community ahead of Veterans Day.

"To honor these men and women is a noble cause," the 85-year-old said. "There is not a cemetery in Michigan that at least couldn’t place a wreath at their entrance.”

Bevier’s father was a building contractor, and young Bevier worked construction prior to his enlistment during the Korean War in 1951. He became a member of the Seabees, the U.S. Navy’s Construction Battalion, and traveled the world building things for the United States. He never forgot the men and women he served with.

“I never served in a war zone,” said Bevier, “but I worked with a lot of wonderful people.”

Years later, after a successful life as a contractor and Christmas tree farmer, he discovered a way to honor veterans, no matter where or when they served.

While wintering in Florida six years ago, he and another Lake City resident and former Seabee, Bud Harris, who winters in the same town with Bevier, volunteered for Wreaths Across America, a movement that places wreaths on the graves of veterans across the United States, before breaking out on his own.

A national cemetery nearby was the site they volunteered, and Bevier began to formulate an idea.

“I couldn’t do wreaths in December; the snow and cold could be a problem. But knew I could do wreaths prior to Veterans Day in November,” recalled Bevier. 

“We had 250 acres of Christmas trees over three counties, five different varieties. Not all of the trees made a good Christmas tree. We had a lot of Fraser fir that were growing to 15-30 feet, and we used the boughs from them to make wreaths. We have sort of an unlimited supply of material.”

Three years ago, Bevier and local volunteers made 750 wreaths that were placed on the graves of Missaukee County veterans. But they needed to cover the 1,397 graves in the county’s 24 cemeteries. Donations for materials — wire, ribbons and hangers — came in, and in 2017 and 2018, a group of 58 volunteers produced 1,500 wreaths.   

The wreaths are constructed in a building at the Bevier farm. Ribbons are tied and the completed wreaths are tied into bundles for distribution.

As part of the larger effort, wreaths are laid in 30 different Michigan cemeteries from Iron River to Monroe, and even on Mackinac Island through efforts with Wreaths Across America. The project began in 2007 when the Worcester Wreath Co. in Maine had extra wreaths and placed them on graves at Arlington National Cemetery.

"Wreaths Across America is all about the mission," said Amber Caron, spokeswoman for the organization. "We honor the veterans, remember them for what they did for us, and teach others about their sacrifices. The wreaths are a catalyst to bring people together, to take a minute to pause and say 'thank you'. We want their families to know their loved ones are never forgotten."

This year, the mission will expand to Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, France, to honor those fallen during D-Day landings as part of WWII. There will be 9,387 Maine-made balsam veterans’ wreaths placed there on Dec. 1.

On a sunny October morning, Bevier's wreaths were loaded onto trailers and taken to cemeteries throughout Missaukee County. Volunteers walked the entire cemetery, placing wreaths on all graves of veterans, some dating back to the Civil War.

Bob Bloomfield, 72, served in Vietnam and volunteered to lay wreaths.

“It’s good to remember the people who served, no matter where or what they did,” said Bloomfield, as he walked the grounds of the Lake City Cemetery. “It’s an honor to be involved.”

Placing the wreaths began last month, with 18 volunteers spreading out over the county.

“We walk all 24 cemeteries when we are done to be sure we didn’t miss anyone,” Bevier said. “...It’s wonderful. I’d like to see this done in all townships and all over Northern Michigan."

John L. Russell is a writer and photojournalist in Traverse City.

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